This week, on the heels of Independence Day, director Hal Hartley (No Such Thing) discusses his latest feature film, My America, which knits together the emotions and people that define the United States.

Commissioned by Center Stage, the state theater of Maryland, the film consists of a series of spirited monologues written and performed by some of the most talented playwrights and actors working today, from Neil LaBute to Christopher Durang, Kathleen Chalfant to Jefferson Mays.

Political, personal, and poetic, this is My America.


Jeb Brown tackles “Remote Control Kid” by Polly Pen


by Hal Hartley

My America was originally devised as a collection of short videos that Center Stage could use in a variety of ways: to celebrate playwrighting in America, to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and to raise awareness for this publicly funded theater.

As far as I understand, the individual pieces were shown in the lobby of the theater and on their website. At some point, while preparing to deliver them all, I began to see just how many there were, and how many of them could be strung together to create a sort of song cycle – a kind of spoken portrait of the nation at this time.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of Center Stage, is a British actor and playwright. And it was his idea to make these 50 videos while he was new to his position at the theater. He was anxious to do this as an interested outsider. Most specifically, he wanted to take a pulse of the country he was now living in.

And it was bracing.

What is MyAmerica? from CENTERSTAGE on Vimeo.

By the time all the writers had submitted the monologues, Kwame was curious about whether the pieces (as written) were too negative, dark, or dispiriting. My feeling was that, yes, they were not celebratory, but they were, in the aggregate, positive, by virtue of not looking away from the nation’s contradictions. Behind most of them, I heard this troubled or tentative desire to somehow be affirmative.

Luckily, none of them were that one-dimensional. But even the most incensed monologues not included in the film that were frank and outrageous, detailing the specifics of some gross injustice, tended to settle down at the end and kind of sigh.


Gia Crovatin performs Neil LaBute’s “Current Events”

For the most part, these were writers whose work I didn’t know personally, people I’d never met, backgrounds I knew nothing about. But I liked working with their words.

We had an hour to do each one. That was my decision. I had a small budget to work with and didn’t want to waste my resources moving from one place to another. And, besides, I didn’t want to set them in “real” places. That would have burdened the writing with a naturalism that most of the pieces weren’t aiming for. They were monologues about the words and the performer. So I just rented a rehearsal room and let the writing and performing be seen and heard.

As a maker of pictures, I needed a space that gave me a few things to work with: windows, a piano, and some chairs. It became something like a chamber piece – a few well-understood objects that could be used or not. And it always started with the performer and the text.

I didn’t cast the pieces. Every hour, a new person would show up at the door and I’d introduce myself. Ten minutes later, we’d be shooting something based on my initial response to their recitation. And most of the time, I would only really begin to understand the text once I heard and saw the performer run through it.

Then I’d decide how we’d see it.


“Two Days Before My Taxes Are Due” by Jeremy Kareken is performed by Thomas Jay Ryan

In the end, there were many great pieces I didn’t include in the 75-minute feature – a lot of good writing and remarkable performances, a lot of important contemporary issues and attitudes. But they were too particular for this kind of presentation. I found that for entertainment like this, we needed the monologues that addressed the most general topics, provided they were well-achieved.

I’ve never had occasion to address something like this before. While I feel this is a film I directed, it’s not a film “by me.” In this case, I felt more like a director shaping the presentation of the text and performances and enjoying them from a distance.

It was a very nice feeling. MM

My America is available now for streaming on Fandor. Click here to view it, or check out the trailer below.

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